BY KERI HARVEY
The lazy rays of an early morning sun squeeze through the mopane branches and colour the earth ochre. It’s 5am, but all aboard the Land Rover are wide awake, senses piqued. Wrapped up warmly and holding on tight, we ease our way over rocks and boulders. The vehicle claws slowly across the rugged terrain. Wild dogs seldom choose easily accessible areas, and their ranges are so vast it’s comparable to finding a pin in a cactus patch. But in the De Beers Venetia Limpopo Nature Reserve in northern Limpopo, the chances are better than most. Here they are researched and tracked daily with telemetry.
“This gangly piece of equipment is essential to our work,” says wild dog researcher and head of carnivore conservation at the Endangered Wildlife Trust, Harriet Mostert Davies. “Without radio tracking it would be virtually impossible to locate the dogs.” But in this inhospitable terrain, even with telemetry, sometimes the dogs are still out of reach.
Today the beeps on the receiver are clear, so the wild dogs can’t be too far away. Still, they’re an elusive species, so we need luck too. “Early morning and late afternoon are the best times to find them,” says Harriet. “You need to catch them while they’re resting, and before they go on the hunt. Once they start moving, it’s impossible to keep up with them. They run relays when hunting and move fast through extremely rugged areas.”
An hour has passed. The day is warming up and soon the dogs’ bellies will call them to hunt. So we’re running out of time to find them still napping from the night. They don’t have pups at the moment, so they could be anywhere on this extensive reserve. The den calls them back only when they have young to feed.
“Wild dogs need huge areas to roam, and habitat loss is a big problem,” says Harriet. “The only natural viable population in South Africa is in the Kruger National Park, where pack ranges average 550km². Unfortunately, there are very few areas in South Africa that have this much space for wild dogs without human conflict. So the only way we can keep a viable population is to establish a managed population of small packs of wild dogs living in several different reserves. We then move dogs between reserves to keep the gene pool strong.” De Beers Venetia is one of the reserves that forms part of this meta-population in South Africa.
“Wild dogs are still not generally popular with farmers,” adds Harriet, “though there are always individuals who support their conservation. We do awareness and information campaigns whenever we introduce wild dogs to an area. But changing negative attitudes is difficult.”
She adds that it may also be the way wild dogs kill that people don’t like. “They are coursing predators, which means they don’t catch prey by surprise but rather chase it down until it becomes exhausted, and then they disembowel it. The animal dies very quickly, but this still offends our human sensibilities. I don’t enjoy watching kills either, but it is part of nature.” Harriet adds that wild dogs are not at all dangerous to humans and have never been known to attack humans in the wild.
The vehicle comes to a lurching halt, and tracker Richard Selamolela jumps onto the Land Rover bonnet, aerial in hand. He waves it slowly in the air and holds the receiver close to his ear at the same time. Then he points ahead and Harriet follows his direction. All aboard are scanning the bush for dogs, but their tawny patchwork coats are perfect camouflage in the dry mopane veld. Only X-ray eyes can find them here.
Ten minutes later Harriet points straight ahead. “There they are, Stellar and Fender, the two females. And under that tree to the left are the males, Rory and Baker.” Lying outstretched in dry leaves, the dogs are virtually impossible to see. But as the vehicle stops they sit up. Alert and ears listening. Now we see them beautifully. Everyone is silent and watches intently as the dogs roll on their backs and playfully chatter to each other.
Black velvety ears, soft brown eyes and lanky bodies. It’s difficult to believe they are one of Africa’s super hunters—making kills in three out of four chases, and weeding out the old and sick among their prey. Wild dogs kill every day, and the spoils are shared amongst the pack. Pups are also fed when the pack returns to the den and regurgitates their share.
Wild dogs may look like a scrawny patchwork version of your pet dog, but they’re anything but. In fact, the wild dog family split from other canids three million years ago. “This is one of the reasons we care so much about conserving wild dogs,” says Harriet, “because they are the only surviving remnant of a unique line.”
In an instant the dogs are on their feet, sniffing each other and twittering in high pitches that sound like birds chatting. A minute later they’re off, the alpha male, Baker, leading the pack to find dinner. The dogs literally disappear as if the bush has simply absorbed them. At the same time the radio signal grows weaker, indicating that they’re headed away from us, and at high speed. So elusive and free spirited. We are still agog at seeing them, enjoying them, and then their sudden departure.
But that’s the nature of these charismatic species. No strings attached. We can’t begin to comprehend an Africa without wild dogs, and wildlife lovers and conservationists don’t want to either. They’re essential to a healthy ecosystem as they keep it strong and flourishing. So we need to make space for them to run and hunt and play. Because once they’re gone, it will be forever.
There are only about 550 wild dogs in total left in South Africa. At last count there were about 130 in Kruger, and a further 125 wild dogs spread between Madikwe, Pilanesberg, Hluhluwe-iMfolozi, Mkhuze, Venetia Limpopo and Tswalu Kalahari Reserve. Another 200 live in captive breeding facilities, and fewer than 100 are free-ranging and live on farmland, mostly in Limpopo. It’s these free ranging ones that are most persecuted, as they come into conflict with game and stock farmers to survive.
The Endangered Wildlife Trust is involved with six wild dog conservation projects in southern Africa, three of which are sponsored by Land Rover and Jaguar South Africa. Long-standing wild dog conservation programmes are also in place in Tanzania, Botswana, Kenya, Zambia and Zimbabwe. The Wild Dog Action Group (WAG) was established in 1998 to manage the South African meta-population.
Where to Track Wild Dogs
De Beers Venetia Limpopo Nature Reserve is the only place in South Africa offering guided, educational wild dog tracking trips. Contact the reserve at email@example.com or call 015-575-2651. A portion of proceeds from these tracking trips supports ongoing wild dog conservation work in the region. The reserve is also part of the Diamond Route—see www.diamondroute.co.za.